England’s Under-21s suffered late heartbreak as Domagoj Bradaric’s stoppage-time strike sent Croatia through to the European Championship quarter-finals on goal difference despite England’s 2-1 victory in Slovenia.
Aidy Boothroyd’s side were left to rue defeats to Portugal and Switzerland in their first two Group D games, which left them needing to beat Croatia by two goals and hope for a Swiss defeat. Portugal earned a 3-0 win to top the group, and England were on track after Ebere Eze’s early penalty and a 74th-minute goal from Curtis Jones.
But in the first minute of injury time, Bradaric struck from 20 yards out to send Croatia through instead, as they set up a last-eight meeting with Spain in May when the tournament resumes. England’s early exit puts further pressure on Boothroyd, whose contract expires this summer.
England were without Tom Davies, Marc Guehi, Ben Godfrey and Emile Smith Rowe after they all failed late fitness tests, while Callum Hudson-Odoi had already returned to Chelsea with a shoulder injury. Liverpool’s Jones, making his first start of the tournament, hit the crossbar from the edge of the area before England were awarded a controversial penalty.
With 12 minutes played, Eddie Nketiah went down under the challenge of Bartol Franjic in the box. Despite minimal contact, referee Harm Osmers pointed to the spot and Eze sent Dominik Kotarski the wrong way to give England the perfect start. Croatia missed chances to equalise before half-time, midfielder Dario Spikic firing over from eight yards out before Aaron Ramsdale saved well from Luka Ivanusec.
Igor Biscan’s men ended the first half on top, but England began the second half with more intensity and Kotarski had to be alert to save Eze’s low free-kick after 50 minutes. Nketiah then shot straight at Kotarski after being released by Eze, before Dwight McNeil’s free kick hit the post just after the hour.
Ramsdale palmed Kristijan Bistrovic’s 30-yard free-kick away and Croatia captain Nikola Moro failed to finish a counterattack, allowing Jones to put England on the verge of qualification. With 16 minutes left, substitute Rhian Brewster crossed for McNeil to hold the ball up and find Jones, who lashed a low drive into the bottom corner from 15 yards.
With 91 minutes on the clock, it looked like England had pulled off the two-goal win they needed to escape the group, only for Lille full-back Bradaric to pick out Ramsdale’s top corner and sink the Young Lions, who saw Jones sent off after the whistle as their frustrations boiled over.